Volume 24, Number 2

In the afternoon Sun

Seth James

The front of the house stood at attention alongside its comrades up and down Gifford Street, but upon closer inspection its uniform was not quite of the same cut. Marching toward the backyard property line, number fifteen swerved suddenly to the right, remorselessly trampling the grave of the once-detached garage. The period lamppost at the street's edge, the brick facing and the French doors, could not disguise that, beneath the façade of suburban domesticity, a newly built house snickered. None of this, however, occupied the woman who sat watching from across the street. A fleeting thought, perhaps, as her mind wandered and her eye did likewise. Her attention always snapped back, though, to the young woman who alternately played with her romping dog or sat quietly upon the front patio.

Anna absently pulled the fabric of her jacket tighter around her sides as she watched. Over her blue hooded sweatshirt and scrubs, it was not the seasonally cool fall weather that made her clutch. The hardness of the park bench beneath her also went unnoticed; as did the breeze that passed fussily through her short hair and the sound of a man approaching briskly through the park behind her. For Anna, the world had contracted to the front yard of number fifteen Gifford Street and Sarah Johnson prompting her dog to play.

Sarah played little. A few turns around the yard, bending briefly to pat Hubert's shaggy side, she seemed reluctant to stay on her feet and yet reluctant to sit down, as well. Her every move, her excited blathering at Hubert, her very happiness was clouded with pain. She closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun, her breathing perceptible from across the street, beneath the elms.

“There you are,” Henry said coming to a leaf-crunching halt a step away from Anna's knee. With his hands stuffed deep into his trouser pockets, his horn-rimmed glasses, and bald pate, he had the air of a professor despite having the voice of an aging fan belt. “Marguerite—though you call her the worst roommate in the history of divorcées—has been listening to you the last few weeks and divined your destination when you left earlier. She called me. Please don't be angry with her.”

Anna gave no indication that she had heard him. Quick to take offense when they were children together, whenever Anna had gone silent, Henry knew with the certainty that all frequently chastened younger brothers knew that his sister was deep within her own thoughts and that whatever occupied her there growled more menacingly than did a sibling's presumption.

He sat next to her, studying her features as he slowly lowered himself to the bench. The last twenty-four years, since she had left for college, had treated her far better than they'd treated him, he thought as he did every time he saw her. It had nothing to do with bags under the eyes; hers were worse that day. It had nothing to do with crow’s feet beginning to scratch beside her eyes; despite glasses for driving and glasses for reading and prescription goggles for swimming, his were worse. No, he had always thought she had taken from the passage of years that which he had gathered only in fits, only in handfuls if he deliberately tried, often dropping: wisdom.

“I saw your car,” he said after receiving no recognition of his presence. “I parked right behind it and came to find you. And where we're parked, we'll both return to tickets, I'm sure.”

Anna's lips parted briefly as a breath raised her gently from the bench before deflating her again into its shadowy bower. Henry glanced across the street for a moment and saw Sarah wrapping her arms around her stomach and rocking gently back and forth. When Hubert came and licked Sarah's bare shins, she brightened and ruffled his ears and sent him scampering after a tennis ball.

“So that's her,” Henry said. “My goodness. Hard to believe it's been so long. She looks happy. Anna?”

“It hit her lungs,” Anna said, “and she thought she had a cold. It sapped her energy, she thought she was anemic. It gave her abdominal pain. She thought she was constipated. But when it caused her pain in her vagina, she took it seriously, wondered if something was truly wrong, and came to Planned Parenthood.” She coughed a laugh that almost ended in a sob and said, “She worried it might have been caused by intercourse, and she didn't want her parents to know she'd had sex.”

“I thought she was eighteen,” Henry said.

“She is,” Anna said, never taking her eyes off Sarah. “But that's what brought her to my clinic. I should say the line from Casablanca.

“Cancer?” Henry said. “No, of course it is. You told mother. Anna, I'm so sorry. For you as well as for her, at the start of her adult life.”

“At the end,” Anna said quietly. “It's the one area of the body we all take seriously enough to see a doctor about. I see it with low-income and unemployed women all the time. Examining them, I notice a dozen treatable conditions. We are their only source of healthcare.”

“Still, it's amazing that she came into your clinic—and on a day when you were volunteering,” Henry said. “Did you tell her who you are? Who she is?”

“No,” Anna said. “I didn't know, didn't recognize her. And with a last name like Johnson, how could I? It was only after I looked at her patient history, from her regular OB/GYN, that I recognized her adoptive parents' names. Mortimer and Hilde. You wouldn't forget them.”

“I suppose not,” Henry said, trying to chuckle. “Still, it must have been difficult not to tell her, not to let it slip. But of course I think you did the right thing by not telling her.”

“I don't,” Anna said.

“Oh,” Henry breathed.

Sarah brushed at Herbert's ear when the rambunctious terrier bounded near her. He hopped and bobbed, in no mood for caresses, leaping away trying to entice his mistress off the patio and into a glorious chase through sunbeam and tree-shade, around shrubbery and over leaves. She clicked and cooed at him but to no avail and had to content herself with smiling at his antics. The slobbery tennis ball was now lost under a hydrangea bush. Herbert had to content himself with snapping at a fat and fuzzy bee that hummed lazily out into the fleeting heat of the front yard's sun on his way to richer flowers along the side of the house. Sarah closed her eyes and hugged her chest, trying to keep the coughs in, trying not to imagine her lungs filling with fluid as her vision swam, and she had to breathe without moving a muscle. At a whistling whine near her feet and a hesitant tongue on her toes, she opened gummy eyelids to meet brown orbs glowing with moisture around her knee. She shush-shush-shushed Herbert and then put her hand behind her back to take an invisible ball from an invisible bag and then held up her closed fist. Herbert wasn't sure if he should succumb to such an obvious treat, leave his mistress in distress. But she smiled mischievously before pumping her arm in the air, and that was too much for the terrier. She lobbed the invisible ball toward the hydrangea bush, and Herbert pelted after it, pawing furiously to drive his head through the tangled branches, to bring his humid fangs a little closer to the tennis ball's intertwined smiles.

“I had just heard back from Johns Hopkins,” Anna said. “I wasn't even showing yet, the first day of my internship. No longer a med student but on my way to earning the title doctor, which we were paid on spec. God, I was arrogant.”

“Normally I would agree with that statement wholeheartedly,” Henry said. “You know me. “But it was also one of the bravest things I ever saw. How many people do you know would have dared to bring a pregnancy into a medical internship?”

“Just the people coming to deliver their babies,” Anna said. “Brave? I couldn't wait for someone to say something, I really couldn't. I had stoked the fires of my distain all summer as I crammed every recommended book into my head. I think I may have crammed more prepared indignation than facts about drug interactions and typical symptoms. I wanted someone to make a crack, to question me, so I could ram it down their throats that I could do anything. Everyone was a condescending ass, to be rebuffed, to be put into his or her place.”

“But you did it,” Henry said. “There's nothing wrong with, I don't know, motivating yourself. God, do you know what I did at that age? Good lord, I hope you don't!”

Anna looked at her brother finally, smiling until she thought again of her pregnancy long ago. Grinding her teeth until the muscles stood out along her jaw, she turned back to the young woman to whom she had given birth eighteen years before.

“It was nothing special,” Anna said. “That's what I told myself. Nothing out of the ordinary. Human beings have sex. Female human beings at times become pregnant. Give birth. There are couples—individuals, too—who want to adopt, dreaming of it as the most blessed damned thing that could ever happen to them. What was the 'grown up' thing to do? Carry the pregnancy to term, give up the child to adoptive parents. All very reasonable and business-like. Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to fret over. Nothing to stop me from doing exactly as I'd planned. No more important than every other biological act a person has to go through in life.”

“Whether that's true or not,” Henry said, “you treated the future of that girl with the same effort and deliberation that you did everything else in life, and it paid off. You found her loving parents who seemingly raised a wonderful young lady.”

“Who are so wonderful themselves,” Anna said, “that she doesn't trust them enough to tell them she's had sex.”

“Oh. stop it,” Henry said, patting her knee. “I don't think you told mother you had so much as dated a boy, had ever kissed or even held hands, until with all the aplomb of a demolitions expert you casually announced at our Fourth of July barbeque that you were with child. Was it for some fault of mother's that you didn't tell her such intimate details of your life or because who in hell has a right to demand such things from me?” he added in an outraged parody of Anna's voice. “She probably got it from you,” he said, nodding across the street.

“Along with her predisposition to cancer,” Anna said quietly.

“That's not funny,” Henry said.

“That's what carried off Father,” she said. “And what is now killing her.”

“You can't go through life worrying about what your genes are planning to do to you,” he said.
“Particularly if you know nothing about them,” she said. “And for what? What good did it do? Giving her up to such wonderful people? Being responsible and 'brave' and 'going through with it.' What good did it do? I talked to Mortimer and Hilde during my pregnancy as often as the agency prescribed. I followed the approved prenatal regime. And do you know what happens after you give birth like that? She was whisked out of the room without my so much as holding her for a second.”

“My god,” slipped past Henry's parted lips.

“It's for the best,” Anna said. “So the birth mother does not begin bonding, nor the child. She's given to her adoptive parents to bond with them. I knew it would happen beforehand. I turned my head and closed my eyes and ran a chapter of methodologies through my mind like a mantra until I heard the door close. Four hours later I left the hospital and never spoke to the Johnsons again. And it was the right thing to do.”

“It was,” Henry said.

“And I told myself that the guilt I felt was nothing more than hormones,” she said. “Nature's little way of keeping babies from being thrown out with the bath water. You know what the young nurses and interns call it these days? Baby rabies. Charming. But they're talking about feeling a desire to have children even though their minds say no. I didn't feel that. I felt that I'd had her, carried her to term and given her away just to prove I could do it. To prove that it did not matter to me. The selfishness of it all. God damn it. Damn me. To create a human life just to, to, to prove something? To create all the pain she would feel—is feeling right now, this second?”

“You did not give her cancer, Anna,” Henry said, taking her hands.

“But I did create the her who has it,” she said. “And for what? Why? Not for her, not for a measly eighteen years. I made her for me. I sometimes think all childbearing is selfishness. The ultimate act of selfishness. You should see the looks I'm given sometimes by patients when they hear I don't have a family of my own. An OB/GYN who has delivered hundreds of babies but doesn't want any of her own? Blasphemy. But what are they doing? They don't choose to have the person their child may one day grow up and become. They choose to have a child, any child, whomever they happen to get as long as it's theirs. It's for their own reasons and nothing to do with the child.”

“Shh, Anna, stop it,” Henry said.

“I don't mean you,” she said, taking her hands from him and looking at them. “But however selfish they are for creating a human life just to fill some gap in their own lives, how much worse am I for creating one for the perverse reason of proving it didn't matter to me?”

“You don't have to have reasons,” he said.

“I suppose in one sense, I didn't,” she said. “It was all futile in the end. I was pregnant again six years later, and when I found out, I went straight across the hall to the pharmacy and wrote myself a script for Mifepristone and aborted that afternoon. Had to be that afternoon, Henry dear, because I had the next day off-shift to recover. Wouldn't want to miss a shift, now would I?”

“And there's nothing wrong with that decision either,” he said. “They are simply two choices. You are allowed to choice them. It's your body. It's your choice. With good reasons, bad reasons, no reasons at all. You don't need to beat yourself up about this. You really don't.”

“Just a choice,” she said. Weariness was clawing its way into her voice and Henry suddenly wondered if she'd slept at all these last few days. “I tell the women who come in seeking abortions the same thing. It's a choice. I tell the crazed protesters spewing hate on the sidewalk the same thing, too.”

“Do you doubt it?” Henry asked gently.

“Of course not,” she said. “A fetus does not possess the physical capacity to contain a human consciousness before the age of viability. Before that point, the fetus is quite literally a part of the mother's body, no more. If a human being suffers a traumatic brain injury so severe that she or he is deemed brain dead, meaning no human consciousness can be contained, supported by what is left of the brain structure, we deem that human being to have died in fact, regardless of the functioning of the rest of the human organs. There is no difference. My abortion has never bothered me. I never think of it unless a potential patient asks me about my own experience. I never tell them about Sarah, though.”

“But you chose to carry Sarah to term,” Henry said. “You chose to develop that organ until it separated from you and became Sarah. I hope you don't regret it.”

“I don't know,” she said.

He raised his arm to put around her shoulders but she shook her head once, so subtly that most would have missed the gesture but not Henry. He put his hands in his lap.

“Anna, I have to ask,” he said. “She does know about the cancer, doesn't she?”

“Of course,” she whispered. “I told her to come in the day after I sent her for the scans, told her to bring her parents, knowing that it would be bad no matter what. Mortimer didn't recognize me but Hilde did. She looked in horror as she stood in the open doorway. Like I was a specter from the grave come to take her daughter. I felt something like that, telling them that the cancer had probably started in her pancreas and then metastasized very quickly, spreading to most of her other organs.”

“That poor girl,” Henry said. “How long?”

“A few weeks,” she said. “Lung cancer of this sort moves very quickly. As does liver. No possibility of treatment. Not for that much cancer, everywhere. By this time next week, she won't be able to get out of bed.”

“And did you,” he began but hesitated. “Did you tell her anything else?”

“No,” she said. “I thought hearing her life sentence was enough for one afternoon.”

“Good,” he said. “I think that was the right decision.”

“I've made a lot of decisions for her,” Anna said. “I made the decisions that brought her into this world, and now I've made the decisions that will see her out of it. I'm going to tell her, though.”

“What?” he said, turning sharply.

“I'm going to tell her I'm her mother,” Anna said. “She has a right to know!”

“Yes, she does,” Henry said, “but you don't have the right to tell her.”

He swiveled off the bench and took a knee before her, his eyes now level with hers, meeting her defiance with the quivering determination he so seldom had the strength to muster through their years together.

“Is this for you or for her?” he asked. “The twist of fate that brought her to you is not a license from the gods to do whatever you want without thinking. She is facing her last day in the sun, her last breath of free air. At her age, she's facing what most people never truly come to terms with. I'm staring down the barrel at forty, and I've lost one parent and three friends and I'm still not prepared for death. She's eighteen—eighteen for Christ sake. Isn't it enough for her to have to face mortality when she had been thinking about colleges and boys and life stretching out ahead of her? Isn't that enough for her to come to terms with? She is going to lie in her deathbed in a couple weeks. She should at least walk into that dark night with this much certainty, that the people who will be holding her hands when the lights go out are the people she always thought they were. Her parents.”

“I don't want the only thing I've ever done for her to be lying to her,” Anna said, her voice breaking. With a gasp she sprang up. Henry tumbled over and sprawled around to see.

Sarah had come to her feet and now held open the front door, one foot past the threshold and the other toeing the line of sunlight demarcated by the patio roof. Herbert bounced on all four feet at once and barked at every whistle, every call. He wanted to stay outside and play, to continue in sunlight and tall grass. Sarah, arms akimbo, told him what a bad boy he was but her laugh gave the lie to her rebuff. Instead of demands, she offered biscuits. Herbert scampered forward, hesitating at the doorway, knowing perhaps that play would be over if he yielded to the promises of his mistress. He danced in his indecision, whining between two wants. In the end, a tap on the rump with the tip of her slipper made the decision for him and Herbert raced inside and toward the kitchen. Sarah stood looking at the sunny yard for a moment before she lowered her face into some private thought and closed the door.